Election Audits in America: A New Innovation Cycle for America’s Elections

Moving Toward Auditable Paper Ballots

The nation is increasingly moving to auditable paper ballots. Since the 2016 Presidential Election when 70% of the vote was cast on paper ballots, Ohio, Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Louisiana have either announced plans or introduced legislation to effectively eliminate touchscreen-based voting systems and adopt systems based on digitally scanned paper ballots.

Today, the technology of high-resolution digital ballot images has replaced older mark-sense technology.  Voter intent (e.g. circled ovals vs filled in ovals) can be easily and quickly discerned on high-quality ballot images without the security risk, inaccuracy and processing costs inherent with human handling. When audit results and ballot images can be easily displayed for everyone to see and results verified, the increased transparency strengthens public trust.

Digital ballot images have already revolutionized election audits.  Florida, New York, Maryland and Vermont have adopted audit technology made possible by ballot images. In some cases, legislation that previously required a manual process were re-written to allow new technology that quickly and accurately verifies the results of every contest and candidate, across every precinct, regardless of the voting system in use.

When paired with the technology of secure, high-resolution digital ballot images, results audits offer the greatest opportunity for innovation. With rigorous ballot control and ballot accounting procedures, process audits can also be significantly improved.

Case Study: The Maryland Audit of 2016

Comprehensive, high-speed election audits, made possible by digital ballot images, have been successfully conducted on a statewide basis. During the 2016 November Presidential election, the Maryland State Board of Elections held the nation’s first statewide election audit. In less than one week after the election and with no impact on the 24 counties’ exhausted staff, voter intent was analyzed on every one of 283 contests and 727 candidates for office or ballot measures. With voters in some counties voting on two-card ballots, the votes of 2.8M voters cast on over 4.6M ballot cards were completely audited. To perform the audit, independently computed audit results at over 360,000 points of comparison were subtracted from the results computed by the primary voting system.  Where differences did occur, powerful software tools allowed the State Board’s staff to drill down to analyze differences in the vote counts and ballot counts.

It was from this detailed comparison of vote differences that three issues were discovered and quickly resolved.

Within minutes after the audit results began to arrive, the State Board of Elections discovered small but statistically significant differences between the audit system and the primary voting system in two contests.  Using the visual tools of the audit system, they were able to analyze the three issues and found that their root cause was the same. The Board staff determined that three specific scanners in three large counties required a simple maintenance procedure. The three counties were ordered to perform the procedure and to re-scan nearly 100,000 ballots – all of this occurred within 24 hours and well within the canvass period. The audit was re-run and confirmed that the issues were resolved.

Assisted by a new class of visual tools, the independent audit results showed that issues could be pinpointed and cured, voting machines performed correctly, the right winner was selected in every contest and that the election was secure.

With the Maryland State Board’s requirement to complete the audit within the certification period, none of this would be possible if any additional burden was placed on exhausted county staff; nor could the audit have been done without the technology of digital ballot images coupled with a system capable of performing a 100% independent audit.

A New Innovation Cycle for America’s Elections

The adoption of high-resolution digital ballot images is the start of an innovation cycle in elections. Digital ballot images make it possible to unleash the creative powers of talented people who seek to contribute to election administration in America.  While it is impossible to predict what creative solutions will emerge, we do know that competition will accelerate the innovation cycle.

Without transparency there can be no assurance of security. With transparency, enabled by new technology, high speed, comprehensive and routinely administered post-election audits have become a proven method to make elections visually accurate and demonstrably secure.